Graded on a Curve,
The Mountain Goats,

Nobody I know has John Darnielle’s uncanny ability to wear the skin of other people. Over the course of several brilliant concept albums The Mountain Goats’ songwriter/singer/resident creative genius has played the roles of a gleefully self-destructive husband trapped in a marriage of the damned, a young meth head in a crew of doomed young meth heads riding a crystal high leading to an inevitably catastrophic plummet to earth, and now a Goth amongst other Goths trying to find his pale way in an unfriendly world.

The newly released Goths demonstrates Darnielle’s amazing capacity to craft intimately detailed short stories that pass for songs as well as the empathy that makes him the best chronicler of the trials of being young and different since Pete Townshend and the Who bequeathed us Quadrophenia. Darnielle, who has a rocket scientist IQ and has written a pair of simply wonderful novels about fucked-up and fucked-over teens for adults, cares about the characters he invents, cares so much indeed that you’ll find yourself captivated by their plights long after you’ve turned off your record player.

Darnielle first captured my imagination with 2002’s “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton,” a feverish salute to a pair of Texas kids who try to start a death metal band and get screwed over royally by their fearful parents by way of thanks. His cry of “Hail Satan tonight!” is both dizzying and delirious, and he’s been showing off his amazing ability to put himself in the skins of misunderstood maladapts ever since.

Goths is no different. His eye for detail is as acute as ever; on the slow “Stench of the Undead” he sings “And outside it’s 92 degrees/And KROQ, the rock of the eighties/Plays Siouxsie and the Banshees” to the accompaniment of some very new wave rhodes piano, while on the percolating and keyboard-driven “Unicorn Tolerance” he sings, hilariously, “Try hard to look hard/Behind my blackened sunglasses/But I have high unicorn tolerance/I have high unicorn tolerance/But I have high unicorn tolerance.” What we have here is a Goth who’s afraid his graveyard-haunting friends will find out the truth about him, namely that he’s the kind of young person who’s still attached to the “soft creature” that he used to be. It’s lovely and innocent but you’ll be laughing with its singer, not at him.

“Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds” is a salute to the front man of The Sisters of Mercy and boasts a “rusting fog machine in a concrete storage space” and the “musty velvet rope guys in Motörhead jackets/Who knew [Eldritch] way back when” and, “Haven’t raised a drink in years but now meet up again.” Nobody has the telling eye for detail that Darnielle has and he flaunts it, our friend does, on such catchy numbers as “We Do It Different on the West Coast,” a worldwide survey of the Goth scene. “I think I’m gonna bleach my hair this weekend” sings our narrator, who is worried about skinheads and notes, “I heard some bad reports about Long Island/I don’t trust what people say about Long Island.”

On “The Grey King and the Silver Flame Attunement” Darnielle’s adopted persona sings wistfully, “I’m hardcore/But I’m not that hardcore” and you can relate; on the piano-driven “Wear Black” he smoothly sings, “Wear black to the intervention” and “Check me out/I’m young and ravishing.” And on the subtly rocking and horn-driven closing track “Abandoned Flesh” Darnielle performs an autopsy of the eighties Goth scene, sadly lamenting how the world forgot about Gene Loves Jezebel and singing, “Robert Smith is secure at his villa in France/Any child knows how to do the spider web dance/Siouxsie has enough hits to keep the bills paid” and plenty more to that effect. It’s funny but it comes from the heart and when he sings about bands “that had to leave the darkness for the sun” you feel the pathos, brothers and sisters, you feel their pain.

Goths would be an undisputed triumph and the champeen of the world were it not, at least in my opinion, for the type of music Darnielle has seen fit to dress his wondrous words up in. This time out The Mountain Goats play a reserved kind of jazz-inflected chamber pop, and while that may be your cup of meat I’m finding it hard to love these songs as unabashedly as I did the ones on 2002’s Tallahassee, 2004’s utterly brilliant We Shall All Be Healed, and 2005’s The Sunset Tree, to pick just three masterpieces out of a hat. The problem with Goths is that Darnielle, whose ability to flay an acoustic guitar astounded me the very first time I saw him play solo at SXSW, does not play the guitar at all on Goths, and neither (unfortunately) does anyone else. I find the overly ornate vocal arrangements rather off-putting as well.

A second reservation, albeit a minor one, that I have about Goths is that unlike on The Mountain Goats’ best concept albums the stakes here are not very high. On We Shall All Be Healed the stakes were life and death, as they were on Tallahassee. Goths lacks that tragic dimension; the saddest thing Darnielle holds out to us is that sooner or later we all lose our youthful ideals and heroes and have to get jobs. There’s real pathos as well as real pain in growing up, but if there is any musical genre this side of death metal that tinkers with the concepts of doom and tragedy it’s Goth, so where are they? I mean, I would think Goths, who blur the boundaries of life and death better than anybody, deserve better. Hail Satan indeed.


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